The Second Vatican Council has been one of the most controversial topics within the Church since the Council ended in 1965. Vatican II, as it’s typically known, is a regular source of contention between those claiming ultimate orthodoxy and those seeking a full-on revolution. But what were the effects of the Council in the United States? Much has been claimed and changed in the name of Vatican II, but as we will see, the changes that swept through the Catholic Church in the United States after Vatican II were primarily a direct result of the cultural revolution that occurred during and immediately following the Council. In fact, the Church has yet to fully see the fruit of Vatican II realized.
Vatican II convened between 1962 and 1965. Initially under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, the Council sought to gather so as to find how they might renew themselves in order to bring the Gospel to all people. Of the many pressing needs during the time of the Council, two were of particular urgency. In a radio address in 1962, John XXIII made it clear that peace and social justice were of great concern. He was right to be concerned about both peace and social justice because as was seen in the years following his radio address, civil rights would be front and center as the drama of the 1960’s unfolded.
Highlighting the sharp contrast that was the struggle for peace, the U.S. witnessed the achievement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only to later witness the assignation of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The backdrop for Vatican II also included the assassination of America’s first Catholic president in John F. Kennedy in 1963, the Vietnam War, and a burgeoning sexual revolution.
Intimately tied to this upheaval, America’s religious ideals would also be put to the test. Religion, as an inherently intimate part of society, tends to be influenced by the prevailing cultural winds of any given period. The same could be said for the 1960’s and the time surrounding Vatican II. Highlighting this upheaval, in 1970, 75% of people polled believed that religion was losing its influence. Contrast that statistic with a similar poll in 1957 where only 14% of those polled held similar sentiments as those polled in 1970.
These statistics highlight the rapid existential revolution that took place in the minds of Americans. These statistics also make sense if one considers that in 1957 the U.S. was in the midst of the Cold War when Americans sought to maintain their cultural and religious roots in the face of the irreligious soviet menace. These statistics make the case that the Church sensed a seismic shift taking place and sought to intervene. Ultimately, Vatican II would prove to be prophetic in many ways.
Vatican II is the only ecumenical council to be convened when there wasn’t rampant heresy threatening the faithful. As such, Vatican II truly became a prophetic council. Regarding the documents of the Council, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger states:
“Some texts of Vatican II at the moment of their proclamation seemed really to be ahead of the times. Then came the cultural revolutions and social convulsions that the Fathers in no way could have foreseen but which have shown how their answers – at the time anticipatory – were those that were needed in the future.”
Thus, the prophetic nature of the Council shows exactly what the Church will need. This need is the same now as it was then and it consists of the implementation of the texts that Ratzinger sees as the tool the Church must utilize. As will be seen, perhaps nobody implemented these tools better than then Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, who played a pivotal role in the Council.
As controversial as Vatican II has been, it isn’t the first ecumenical council to be surrounded by controversy. As George Weigel points out, with regard to the ecumenical councils throughout history, “No matter where they took place, what they did, or how long they took to do their work, virtually every one of them was steeped in conflict and followed by controversy.” Although Vatican II was unique in that it was prophetic in its timing, it is the very nature of ecumenical councils to be held during tumultuous times. Vatican II was also unique in that it was meant to be pastoral and evangelical rather than purely dogmatic. Made a Cardinal shortly after the Council, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla would provide a model for implementing the vision of Vatican II.
Cardinal Wojtyla fully embraced the mission of the Council, and sought to prepare the Church for the trials that had already begun but which would eventually explode with an intensity that may have been hard to fully conceive of at the time. These battles would come in the form of complete sexual denigration, rampant materialism, and the “dictatorship of relativism.”
The West would be overtaken, leaving a path of hopelessness and despair, all of which is the inevitable result of man straying from his identity and purpose. The Council, most especially the document Gaudium et Spes, sought to answer these very problems. As a result, Cardinal Wojtyla would go on to publish Sources of Renewal which provided a road map for implementing Vatican II in Krakow. Wojtyla would even take it a step further and bring Vatican II to the people via a local synod meant to establish a vibrant community that would thrive on the evangelical nature of Vatican II.
Although Wojtyla provided a successful blueprint for implementation in Poland, not all European countries, or the rest of the world for that matter, would have the same success. Clearly, the fruit of Vatican II isn’t just lacking in the U.S. The decades following the Council can be seen as a sort of purification in the Church in preparation to receive the gift of Vatican II so as to bear fruit for the world. As Joseph Ratzinger states:
“…every council is first of all a reform of the ‘summit’ which then must spread to the base of the faithful. This means that every council, in order to really yield fruit, must be followed by a wave of holiness.”
Ratzinger makes the case that it is the very nature of a council to prepare the faithful to produce fruit, but in order for this to happen, there is a purging of all that is not in accord with the council. Starting from a place of emptiness and need allows the fruits of the faith to be seen. Through this perspective, when looking at the years following Vatican II, one might find purpose in the sea of dissent and seemingly chaotic aftermath.
Traditionally, the breeding ground for revolutionary thought throughout history can be found at the university level. Academic professionals, who hold the responsibility of molding young minds, hold a particular position of influence with regard to changing the landscape of society. The influence wielded by academics can either be used for edification or scandalization under the veneer of academic freedom. Immediately following the Vatican II, Catholic University of America became the epicenter and example par excellence for this flavor of dissent.
The spark that lit the fuse was ignited the morning of April 17th, 1967, when a professor of theology at CUA, Father Charles Curran, was informed that his contract would not be renewed and he was effectively dismissed. Fr. Curran and his brand of theology embodied the spirit of dissent at CUA. Having found an ally in the American Association of University Professors, Curran and those like him became fiercely independent with no tolerance for the Magisterium of the Church or Her dogmatic truths. Once theologians forget that they serve the Church in obedience to the truth, the doors to intellectual hubris open wide. Like any good revolution, the dissent in the U.S. immediately following the Council was characterized by the rejection of authority.
The irony of the intellectual revolt at CUA, is that it apparently held to an ethos of rejecting any authoritarian structure as a necessary condition for the pure search for truth. The irony of the situation smacks of Pontius Pilate as he stood before Jesus asking, “Truth? What is truth?” While staring Truth itself in the face, Pilate was dumbfounded as to where truth could be found, whether that was by naivete or stupidity could be argued, but the result remains the same. It is this position of arrogance that allowed the haughty academic minds at CUA to blind themselves to the infallible truth guarded by the Magisterium of the Church.
The Curran event became the foundation for the “Statement of Dissent” in 1968 and the open rejection of Humanae Vitae. Unfortunately, the shock waves sent through the U.S. by the Curran event have come to characterize many Catholic universities. The incident itself would go on to be the first of what would become much “anti-fruit” following the Council.
What became known as the “spirit of the Council,” a slogan that would make the serpent in Eden giddy, became the front for the movement which effectively sought to hijack Vatican II amidst the cultural revolution that was taking place. Already making several appearances in this piece, Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, remains one of the foremost authorities on Vatican II. Ratzinger used the strongest possible language when referring to the post-conciliar period and the rebellion as exemplified at CUA:
“Vatican II in its official promulgations, in its authentic documents, cannot be held responsible for the development which, on the contrary, radically contradicts both the letter and the spirit of the Council Fathers…I am convinced that the damage that we have incurred in these twenty years is due, not to the ‘true’ Council, but to the unleashing within the Church of latent polemical and centrifugal forces; and outside the Church it is due to the confrontation with a cultural revolution in the West: the success of the upper middle class, the new ‘tertiary bourgeoisie’, with its liberal – radical ideology of individualistic, rationalistic and hedonistic stamp.”
Ratzinger leaves no room for doubt about how one can understand the aftermath of Vatican II. This point is crucial if one is to understand that the fruit of Vatican II has yet to be seen and should be yearned for. Not understanding this point has created a whole new race of schismatic traditionalists in further contrast to those taking a hyper-liberal departure from orthodoxy; both positions are untenable. The bad fruit from the revolutionary post-conciliar period can be evidenced in another tragic way, a way that is deeply tied to the doomed sexual revolution.
Shortly after the close of Vatican II, Father Robert McNally prophetically declared that there would be a crisis in the priesthood with vocations dwindling to catastrophic numbers. The plummeting number of vocations after the close of the Council, during the supposedly “enlightened” period which gave birth to the “spirit of the Council,” can be referenced as one of the most damning statistics for the age of dissent. Numbers don’t lie. From 1966 to 1999, the number of seminarians in the U.S. dropped from 39,638 to 4,826 and ordinations were cut in half during that same period. Those figures are catastrophic. This numbers crisis would prove to be systemic and indicative of an even greater tragedy that would befall the Church in the U.S.
Investigative reporter Michael Rose, in his book Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church, systematically documents how the vocation crisis is directly tied to the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Church in America. Not so surprisingly, Rose presents a thesis that shows how seminaries, much like CUA, became a place of dissent after Vatican II with formators, professors, and faculty actively trying to weed out orthodox men in favor of those who held a radical progressive view of the Church in line with the “spirit of the Council.” That’s not to say that abuse of minors never took place at any point prior in the Church and the blame can surely go around, but the common thread is that there entered a wave of men into the priesthood following the Council who ate up the fruits of the sexual revolution and were unfit to occupy any ministerial role. These men would themselves go on to victimize many thousands of people.
Is it that far-fetched to believe that the fruit of a sexual revolution and a culture of permissiveness which sought to “liberate” man from God’s design for love, would go on to enable such heinous sexual deviancy? The logic is easy to follow. At the heart of this tangled web you have an ecumenical council which has been the scape-goat for much. To blame Vatican II for the post-conciliar chaos means turning a blind eye to hijacking that took place amidst tremendous cultural upheaval.
In the end, we can establish that the radical changes which swept through the Church in the post-conciliar period are largely not fruits of Vatican II, rather the fruit of a revolution which sought to assert itself above the Magisterium. The irony of the “spirit of the Council” is that a movement which sought to reject all forms of authority under the guise of a questing for truth hijacked and relied upon the authority of the Church to give credibility to its movement which was devoid of any lasting substance. As Joseph Ratzinger points out, the movement itself only further served to discredit its own claims.
As evidenced by then Cardinal Wojtyla, the fruit of Vatican II is good when implemented and accepted. This fruit will come to bloom in the U.S. after the necessary purification takes places and we have the proper disposition for receiving. Those who hold to the dissident ideologies of the “spirit of the Council” are becoming relics of the past, and few are they who are running to take their place. But maybe I’m an optimist.
Dolan, Jay P., The Catholic American Experience: A History From the Colonial Times to the Present, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1985.
Mitchell, Peter M., The Coup at the Catholic University: The 1968 Revolution in the American Catholic Education, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2015.
Ratzinger, Joseph with Vitorrio Messori, The Ratzinger Report, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1985.
Rose, Michael S., Goodbye Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church, Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2002.
Weigel, George, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1999.